The Glass Cliff Follows the Glass Ceiling: How to Prevent the Creation of the Glass Cliff


Are you aware of a possible glass cliff at your organization? As a result of the glass cliff, several women in leadership positions don’t receive the same support as their male counterparts. In this Women’s History Month special, we look at why the glass cliff exists and how to curb its impact, with insights from Pinsight CEO and bestselling author, Martin Lanik.

The glass ceiling for women in the workplace has been well documented. A joint survey by and McKinseyOpens a new window , covering 68,500 employees, found that in 2019, only 34% of senior management comprised women. And as we move across the VP, SVP, and C-level ranks, this number dipped to 30%, 26%, and finally, 21%, respectively.

Research suggests that women who break through the glass ceiling and obtain a seat at the C-table are often set up to fail – a phenomenon known as the “glass cliff.” These companies are already sinking ships. And they bring in women leaders to help save the business, or simply assign blame for the probable, and sometimes inevitable, failure of the business.


To explore the impact of the glass cliff further on the occasion of Women’s History Month, we spoke to Martin LanikOpens a new window , CEO of PinsightOpens a new window . Lanik is also the bestselling author of The Leader Habit, a book that documents necessary leadership skillsOpens a new window and how to acquire them.


Learn More: Diversity and Inclusion Trends 2020 – The Year of Tough MeasuresOpens a new window

Why Does the Glass Cliff Exist?

Recently, Pinsight conducted a detailed study of bias in the leadership pipeline titled Repairing the Broken RungOpens a new window (email required), based on data from 129 organizations. It revealed how biasOpens a new window creeps into leadership decisions for struggling companies.

Lanik tells us in an exclusive discussion: “In times of crisis, companies don’t want to risk the loss of who they believe to be their most valuable, high-potential talent – white men. In tough times, they are more likely to sacrifice employees who they perceive as less valued and more dispensable – women and racial minorities.”

We have observed this happening in companies worldwide.

In 2018, department store JCPenney hiredOpens a new window Jill Soltau as its new CEO. At the time, JCPenney had been without a leader for over five months, and its CFO had also recently resigned. Soltau was brought into a sinking ship – the company carried $4.1 billion in debt. She had to take dramatic steps to keep the company afloat (including buying 500,000 JCPenney shares herselfOpens a new window ). In 2020, the company is expected to closeOpens a new window six of its department stores.

Another company where the glass cliff came into play was Xerox. In 2001, Xerox was on the verge of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, with over $17 billion in debt. The company decided to onboard Anne MulcahyOpens a new window as the new CEO – Mulcahy had been in Xerox for 24 years, but had no leadership training, as she admits herself. From a sales and HR track, Mulcahy was shifted to the CEO position, and on the day of her appointment, Xerox’s stock dropped by 15%.

This indicates how most people feel about women in leadership positionsOpens a new window .

“Our research shows that women are walking into leadership roles less equipped and without the same preparation as men,” confirms Lanik.

“Women are less likely to be identified as ‘high-potential employees,’ and so they are denied access to the special training that many of their male colleagues receive – executive coaching and participation in strategic, highly visible projects,” he adds.

And one company where the glass cliff was extremely pronounced is probably Yahoo. Marissa Mayer, formerly a Google employee, joined Yahoo in 2012 in a bid to revive the iconic company. However, right after joining, Mayer faced hostility from the management. One analyst went as far as to send a 99-page presentationOpens a new window to Yahoo’s board on why the company should terminate Mayer as the CEO – and this was days after she had given birth to twinsOpens a new window .

Like in Mulcahy’s case, Yahoo stock dropped by 33%Opens a new window during Mayer’s tenure.

“The double-edged sword for women is that they are less valued by management, and even when they are finally given the opportunity to lead, most people around them (unconsciously) believe that they don’t have leadership potential,” commented Lanik.

Learn More: The Impact of #MeToo on Women’s Mentorship in the WorkplaceOpens a new window

How to Prevent the Glass Cliff from Influencing Leadership Decisions

Here’s the bottom line: the onus of scaling the glass cliff isn’t on women. Several female leaders, when faced with difficult situations, have steered their companies towards incredible new heights.

For instance, Mulcahy re-established the Xerox brand and named Xerox’s Ursula BurnsOpens a new window in her succession planOpens a new window – the first African American woman to lead a company of this scale, as well as the first woman-to-woman succession in the Fortune 500.

Marissa Mayer, on the other hand, was criticized for her management of Yahoo and its eventual sale to Verizon in 2017. She did not return to the company following the sale.

But regardless of how women CEOs perform, companies need to make leadership equality central to their values and ethos. This, they can achieve by taking the following steps:

1. Bolstering subjective opinion with data when outlining succession plans

“Almost 90% of organizations rely on the judgment of management when selecting future leaders. But managers are not a reliable source of data, because unconscious bias colors their perception,” tells us Lanik.

Address this by leveraging performance analytics to inform succession plans. Past performance, personality tests, potential assessments, and an employee’s own ambitions should go into succession planning. And this needs to be done way before the business sees a downturn. Leaders need to be prepared for crises and armed to captain sinking ships if ever required.

2. Offering women-specific leadership development tracks

Pinsight’s study also found that companies groom nearly 2X more men for leadership roles than women. To address this and achieve real workplace equityOpens a new window , design leadership tracks specifically for high-potential female professionals.

A combination of one-on-one coaching and domain training can equip future leaders without gender biasOpens a new window . Companies must also use artificial intelligence to build their leadership pipelineOpens a new window to reduce instances of bias.

3. Conducting blind hiring to lessen the effects of unconscious bias 

“Set up a ‘blind audition’ of the leadership role in the form of a business simulation. Candidates’ leadership capabilities would be measured by trained third-party consultants who have no pre-existing relationship with them,” suggests Lanik.

This is critical, as the glass ceiling often prevents qualified women from getting the jobs they deserve. For instance, a study of 55,000+ executivesOpens a new window (email required) found that over 50% didn’t assess a single female candidate in their search for a new CEO.

If there is only one woman on the shortlist, the chances are that she won’t be hired. As more and more women break through the glass ceiling, the prevalence of the glass cliff will also start to weaken.

Learn More: Companies Must Lead the Change for Gender EqualityOpens a new window

Closing Thoughts

Phenomena like the glass ceiling and the glass cliff not only hold back individual progress but also derail organizational growth. As these stories tell us, there is no link between leadership potential and genderOpens a new window – by keeping women out of the C suite, companies only lose out on top-tier, highly capable talent. And by building a glass cliff, organizations create an environment where these female leaders struggle to perform optimally.

That’s why it is critical to revisit the conversation from a people-centric perspective. Goldman Sachs CEO set an example by announcing earlier this year that it would take companies public only if they had at least one diverse board member. Such gender diversity initiativesOpens a new window , when taken publicly, force companies into action and ensure that they fulfill their gender diversity goals. 

But eliminating the possible creation of the glass cliff is not just a practical issue – it is a cultural issue. While even men may be leading failing companies, how many of their employees would be bold enough to send a 99-page presentation to the company on why the man in charge must be removed?

Every employee – from interns to CEO, regardless of gender and racial/ethnic minorities – deserves a nurturing work environment that is conducive to productivity. By taking proactive steps to demolish the glass ceiling and a possible glass cliff, it is possible to give every CEO a launchpad to success, which in turn takes the organization toward success.

Does demolishing the glass cliff feature on your blueprint for women’s advancement in the workplace? Tell us on FacebookOpens a new window , LinkedInOpens a new window , or TwitterOpens a new window . We would love to hear from you!